Sermon - 20th January 2019
Our supernatural God
Scripture - 2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:3-14
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Last week, Philip looked at two accounts of healing, as recorded in Mark’s Gospel: firstly, the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead. (Jairus was the leader of a local synagogue.) And secondly, the woman who in faith sought healing for her 12 years of debilitating bleeding. Those two miracles radically changed the lives of those two individuals.
Today, we are going to look at two similar miracles in the Bible concerning the feeding of many people, initially from a small amount of food: one of them is from the Old Testament from the time of the prophet Elisha, in approximately 1000 BCE; the other, from the time of Jesus’ ministry.
In these two Biblical accounts, something happens which results in there being enough for everyone’s fill and for some to be left over after the meal. Maybe we like to think of ourselves as rational, 21st Century people, and our modern instinct is to shy away from the unexplained, even miraculous happenings in both of these readings. Maybe we want to treat them or contrive to explain them away as allegories, or being harsher, to dismiss them as fairy-stories. The problem here is that sometimes our explanations do not provide a one-size fits all solution. Here’s an amusing little story to explain it.
There once was an enthusiastic young Christian who was sitting the park reading the Bible, the story of how the Israelites left slavery in Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. She was so excited in her reading by the miraculous way in which Moses parted the Red Sea that she shouted aloud “Hallelujah, praise God!” A man passing by heard her and stopped and asked her what had so excited her. He listened, then told her that he was a theology professor at a nearby university and went on to explain that it was not really a miracle, but that the wind was blowing from a certain direction and the position of the Moon affected the tides, so the water was just a few centimetres deep, allowing the Israelites to cross. The professor continued his walk around the park, and a few minutes later, he spotted the young woman running to catch him up. Breathless from the running and from excitement, she exclaimed, “Praise God! The whole Egyptian army was drowned in a few centimetres of water!”
The rational explanation fitted one part of the story, but failed to take account of another part. And so, if we try, and we don’t have to try too hard, we can try to explain away the miraculous happenings with the food in both of today’s readings. It is a bit like a blanket that doesn’t quite cover us, leaving part of us out in the cold!
In preparing this sermon, one such explanation I found was that the stories are allegories about greed: that if each person eats only what is needed, there will be enough food for everyone, with some to spare. Others try to explain away what happened as it being a spiritual or symbolic meal, like our Communion, where the bread we eat and the wine we drink are just tokens to satisfy fully spiritual hunger and thirst.
Food is essential for life: we eat every day, several times a day. A shared meal in bread and wine forms the heart of our weekly Communion service. We mark festivals like Christmas and special events in our lives with shared meals with our family and friends. Let us look more closely today’s readings.
The Gospel reading from John, tells of how a multitude were fed. This is one of the few accounts of Jesus’ life which is told in all four Gospels. All of them mention 5,000 men, but only Matthew’s Gospel (14:21) adds “besides women and children”. So we are talking a lot of people, maybe, including the women and children, over 10,000! All four Gospel accounts mention five barley loaves and two fish, but only John’s Gospel mentions that these belonged to a boy. I do wonder if the boy (or maybe his mother back at home) was the only one who had the common sense to bring some food with him. He can’t have been only one who was prepared, surely?
Looking at the text in detail: in verse 3, Jesus went up a hill. Some translations use the word “mountain” instead. Going up a hill or mountain for Jews in Biblical times was synonymous with going to be with God. The Exodus story of Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, and the Temple being built on Mount Zion in Jerusalem are just two such examples. Every Jew, both men and women, will have been aware of the significance as they walked away from their home villages to follow Jesus that day.
Verse 4 of the text tells us that it was close to the Passover Festival. Again, the significance of Jesus’ actions to feed the people would not have been lost on them. Their minds would have been filled with parallels of Moses. The return of both Moses and Elijah, heralding the coming of the promised Messiah, was something which fired the faith and imagination of every Jew, and we can perhaps imagine why so many people will have left their homes, villages and their daily work to go and see Jesus. The synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – all tell us that it was late, maybe even evening or night-fall. These people seem to be so enthused by Jesus that it looks like they end up spending the night the open air, away from the shelter of their homes.
I say “we can perhaps imagine”, but really, I doubt that we can. I asked myself the question. And maybe you can think and answer for yourself. When was the last time you left your house, not taking money or food with you, walked away from your work and got caught up in something that was so exciting? Somehow, our modern lives do not lend themselves to such behaviour. We might be more concerned about having enough battery life on our phones to film Jesus or having a signal so we could tweet about being on the mountain than we would be interested in going without a meal!
All four Gospel accounts of this miracle are preceded with Jesus’ ministry around the Sea of Galilee, including healing the sick. Jesus then withdraws, with his Disciples, and the people follow him. They are so enthused that they temporarily abandon their normal daily routines and domestic comforts in favour of a grassy mountainside in Galilee.
Matthew, Mark and Luke have the Disciples expressing their concern to Jesus for the well-being of the crowd: their solution is an earthly one, to send them away so they can find food and shelter in local villages. The implication here is that some, at least, will have travelled some considerable distance away from their homes, and going home that evening was not a possibility. At that point, Jesus intervenes and the miraculous feeding of the multitude takes place.
John’s Gospel’s account is slightly different: it is Jesus who takes the initiative by asking the Disciple Philip about where the bread to feed the people is to be bought. Philip is overwhelmed by the question, realising that the cost would be prohibitive. Verse 7 mentions 200 denarii. A denarius was a Roman unit of currency, and one denarius was roughly worth one day’s pay; so, the 200 denarii figure implies that to feed the crowd would cost almost a year’s wages! In modern-day terms, to buy 10,000 people a £3.50 lunch meal-deal at a supermarket would cost £35,000! This economic comparison gives further emphasis to the scale of what was to come.
In our 21st century society with media, literature, writing and entertainment beyond measure, we have become distant from a time, not too long ago, when the main way of passing the time was to tell stories to each other, perhaps over a meal or in front of the fire, keeping warm of an evening. The oral story-telling tradition is one of the main ways the Jews of Biblical times will have spent much time, and many, if not most, of these stories will have been bound up with the history and religion of Israel.
The Jews who went to listen to Jesus that day, they will have been familiar with the numerous stories relating to miraculous multiplication of basic things:
- The Israelites were fed both manna and quail in the desert, following the Exodus from Egypt when they complained to God about being hungry.
- Their thirst was quenched, again when they complained to God, and Moses struck the rock at Meribah.
- The prophet Elijah when he stayed with a widow during a famine, and neither her jar of flour, nor her oil ran out until the Lord sent rain to water the crops.
- The Jewish festival of Hannukah (or Festival of Lights) tells of how the oil in the lamps of the Temple remained lit for eight days, despite there only being oil enough for one.
- And in our first reading (which you may never had heard before), we heard how the prophet Elisha provided food for over 100 people from just 20 barley cakes.
In the Jewish experience, there was nothing new going on. For the 5000 men, and the women and children, on that grassy mountainside, what Jesus did in this miracle would have been an echo of former miracles performed by holy men of history like Moses, Elijah and Elisha, and thus be a very clear sign that Jesus was the same: at the very least, blessed by God, a prophet; and, indeed, this is how our Gospel reading finishes, with the people declaring Jesus “the Prophet who was to come into the world”!
In closing, three observations: firstly, all four Gospel accounts begin the meal with Jesus instructing, through the Disciples, that the people sit down. It seems a little odd to us that maybe the crowd had been standing the whole time; however, to invite someone to sit and to join in with a meal is a universal gesture of welcome and hospitality.
Secondly, all four Gospel accounts tell us that the people ate their fill, clearly going beyond a symbolic or spiritual meal, and the volume of the left-overs – twelve baskets full – serves to emphasise the scale of the miracle, the bounteous nature of the feast and God’s abundant provision.
Finally, both our readings today remind us of the otherness of God, above and beyond our rationalising 21st century minds. Those of us who are from a Catholic tradition are probably more at ease with the idea of miracles than those of us from the Protestant tradition. The late Pope, John Paul II, has been canonised as a Saint, because it is said that two miraculous healings occurred as a result of his prayers: someone healed of Parkinson’s disease and another of a terminal brain aneurysm.
It is easy to believe in a Jesus whose message of social justice inspires our lives; however, our Faith is one which is built upon the supernatural – that which is beyond what we would normally perceive to be natural. When we read the Gospels, we cannot escape that which ‘super-natural’: Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, preached the Good News, healed the sick, fed the many, raised the dead, calmed the storm and rose from the dead. Both Testaments of the Bible tell of God’s breaking into humanity in ways that are above and beyond our rational understanding.
So let us take the example of the people who took a risk in faith, followed Jesus, and far from their homes, even up a grassy mountain, they found rest and sustenance. Jesus took all that they had – five small barley loaves and two fish – and through His blessing, it became so much more.
At the start of this new year (2019), we looked at giving and re-dedicating our lives to Christ, offering the little that we have to Him, that through His blessing, it will become so much more.